Recognizing the Role Schools Play in Teaching Noncognitive Skills
Micheline Malow, PhD
In the United States one out of five children evidence characteristics of a mental health disorder, such as a learning disability, attention deficit, or anxiety; making them more likely to repeat a grade, experience a suspension, and/or leave school (Child Mind Institute, 2016). The 17.1 million children under 18 in the U.S. with mental health disorders have one thing in common, the school system (Child Mind Institute, 2016); making schools the optimal place to educate students on the positive social-emotional skills that can challenge self-defeating behaviors such as dropping out of high school before graduation.
High school graduation rates in the United States have risen over the last several years, with a national average of 82 percent of students completing high school in 2014. However graduation rates for students with disabilities are much lower, 70 percent in 2014. America’s Promise Alliance, a national organization focused on the well-being of America’s youth, began a GradNation campaign that seeks to raise that statistic, proposing a graduation goal of 90 percent by the year 2020 for all students (gradnation.americaspromise.org). Although implementing high academic standards and engaging in practices to maintain school accountability have made great gains toward raising the graduation rate, professionals working in education also emphasize that it is equally important to provide students with the individual support needed in the efforts to achieve this goal.
Supporting all students for educational and lifetime success requires attention to both the hard and soft skills, also referred to as cognitive, and noncognitive skills. Cognitive abilities, those displayed through mastery of core academic content, are the skills that have traditionally been thought of as guaranteeing student success. However it is the set of noncognitive competencies that make students’ effective learners. Noncognitive capabilities specifically focus on two areas 1) social and emotional learning (SEL), and 2) academic attitudes and interpersonal behaviors (Farnham, Fernando, Perigo, Brosman, & Tough, 2015). A brief review of noncognitive capabilities follows.
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), was founded in 1994 with the goal of recognizing evidence-based SEL initiatives in school settings (www.casel.org). Research focusing on the impact of adding SEL programs into schools has found repeatedly that when programs are implemented, not only do the social and emotional skills of students improve, but students’ academic performance also increases (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Tayloe, & Schellinger, 2011). SEL focuses on developing within students the ability to recognize emotions, while providing them the skills necessary to regulate and communicate this emotional understanding. Furthermore, SEL programs benefit students by addressing and cultivating student functioning through five capacities identified by CASEL that compose SEL (www.casel.org).
Five SEL Capacities
1) Self-awareness – acknowledging how emotions and thoughts influence behavior.
2) Self-management – effectively regulating emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
3) Social awareness – accepting and empathizing with a diverse group of individuals.
4) Relationship skills – establishing and maintaining relationships with others.
5) Responsible decision making – evaluating alternative consequences of actions.
In a similar vein, another national educational initiative, Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) (www.pbis.org), has called for students to be taught, supported and surrounded with SEL practices in schools at the individual, class, and school level. Although PBIS is implemented at multiple levels throughout the school, it is mainly a school-wide SEL initiative; with schools buying into and implementing research-based programs. Integrating SEL curriculums into daily educational programming is one way to foster the development of student capabilities, however it has been viewed as expensive add-on programming, and not all school systems have implemented PBIS curriculums.
At times, fiscal concerns have impeded large-scale implementation of SEL programs in schools, but many SEL strategies need not be done on a school-wide basis. Individual teachers can utilize their own interpersonal skills in classrooms in order to avail students of documented SEL benefits. For example, the supportive properties of relationships can provide SEL opportunities. An examination of the role relationships play in supporting students to engage in their education found that social supports from multiple sources, e.g. peers, teachers, and home, can shield students from adverse life experiences. “The relationship itself is a powerful vehicle for change. The more sources of support young people have, the better their chances to graduate from high school” (GradNation.org/DontQuit; Summary paper).
Another individual strategy teachers can use in classrooms to mediate adverse student experiences is mindfulness, a form of brief meditational practice, designed to direct thoughts and behaviors through the self-regulation of awareness, attention, and metacognition (Bishop, Lau, Shapiro, Carlson, Anderson, Carmody, et al. 2004). A literature review concluded that mindfulness activities can lead to positive psychological feelings, improved functioning, and less psychological distress (Hart, Ivtzan, & Hart, 2013). Individual studies have found that mindfulness activities convey benefits to children evidencing difficulties with social competence (Flook, Goldberg, Pinger, & Davidson, 2015), social anxiety disorder (Norton, Abott, Norberg, & Hunt, 2014), anxiety and depression (Schonert-Reichl, Oberle, Lawlor, Thompson, Oberlander, & Diamond, 2015), and modulating attention (Semple, Lee, Rosa, & Miller, 2010). Support for mindfulness activities in school settings comes from reports of beneficial results in areas of academic improvement, increased attendance rates, decreased suspensions, and an increased wellbeing (Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz, & Walach, 2014).
Academic Attitudes and Behaviors
Educational researchers, in collaboration with teachers, have acknowledged the need to put actionable strategies into the hands of teachers to advance students’ academic mindsets. Holding an academic mindset, characterized by the belief that through persistence and effort a student can successfully achieve, is thought to be an essential part of effective learning; specifically it conveys the notion that effort builds intelligence. This belief must permeate all levels of the educational system starting with district leaders and extending to every adult who interacts with students throughout the day. The following four student beliefs are thought to deeply influence academic behaviors, affecting motivation, strategy use, and perseverance.
Four beliefs (www.mindsetworks.com):
1) I belong in this learning community.
2) I can change my abilities through my effort (a growth mindset).
3) I can succeed.
4). This work has value and purpose for me.
When students hold these beliefs they are said to have a growth mindset; focusing on the process that leads to learning enables them to perform to the best of their ability. Research collaborations have identified specific strategies teachers can use in classrooms that benefit students, however simply giving students the message that the brain has the propensity to grow and develop through effort, struggle, and engagement is beneficial. In order to successfully communicate the idea that student effort builds effective learning, teachers need to first examine their own long-held beliefs. Educators must ask themselves what their own attitudes are in regard to capacity to learn; do they believe that their own learning is limited, or do they value effort as a way to increase capacity in themselves and in their students. This self-reflection is essential as students are not able to develop as effective learners unless their teachers are able to model the skills and beliefs they are teaching them.
Seek to Develop Noncognitive Competencies
Students develop into effective learners through consistent support and nurturing of the SEL capacities and academic beliefs that characterize effective learning. Both hard and soft skills are necessary for a lifetime of success, and schools are the optimum place to deliver this lesson to all students. Schools hope "to be able to say to any child, in any part of the United States, your schools will educate you, challenge you, care for you, support you, and graduate you ready to succeed in the world" (Child Mind Institute, 2016). To realize this ideal, teachers must embrace the notion of infusing noncognitive skills such as SEL and academic attitudes and behaviors into the classroom. To learn more about how teachers can infuse SEL and academic mindsets into everyday classroom activities, visit the organizations’ websites listed throughout this overview – gradnation.org; casel.org; pbis.org; and mindsetworks.com.
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Center for Promise Research. (2015, September). Don’t quit on me. What young people who left school say about the power of relationships. Retrieved from
Child Mind Institute, (2016). 2016 Child Mind Institute Children's Mental health Report.
Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. Retrieved from www.casel.org
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Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Special Education at Manhattanville College located in Purchase, New York. Dr. Malow teaches courses in Foundations of Special Education, Child Development, and Research. She has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on risk taking behavior and students with disabilities. She has co-authored a book with Praeger Press, Adolescents and Risk. Dr. Malow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.